The U.S. Congress has withstood boisterous exercises of two long-standing American traditions: peaceful protest and a minority political party’s right to dissent.
Bedlam reigned Wednesday in the House of Representatives as the presiding officer, Republican Ted Poe of Texas, banged and banged the speaker’s gavel.
“The House will be in order! The House will be in order!” Poe bellowed, grim-faced.
“No bill, no break!” dozens of Democrats chanted repeatedly as they occupied the floor and refused to disperse. Led by civil rights icon John Lewis of Georgia, they demanded congressional action to stem gun violence.
Poe noted that Democrats were violating House rules stipulating that members must be formally recognized to speak on the floor. Poe could have ordered the sergeant at arms to remove the rebellious lawmakers, but opted to shut down the chamber instead.
“The House is currently not in a state of order,” Poe said. “The House stands in recess.”
Although rare, both Democrats and Republicans have occupied the House floor in recent decades, always when in the minority and always to the ire of the other party.
Budget, gas price disputes
“It’s happened two other times since 1970,” said congressional scholar Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy research group. “Democrats did it in 1995 for a few hours during a budget showdown. Republicans did it in 2008 over high gas prices.
“Minority party members in the House often try procedural moves to circumvent the majority, though their opportunities to do so are much more limited than in the Senate,” Reynolds added.
Indeed, while House Democrats resorted to a “sit-in” — dusting off a tactic used extensively in the 1960s to protest racial segregation — their Senate counterparts mounted a similar effort last week, but one that made explicit use of powers the chamber affords to the minority party.
Drawing on the Senate’s tradition of unlimited debate, Democrats commandeered the floor and delivered 15 hours of uninterrupted speeches on the need for gun control legislation.
In both the House and Senate, prominent Republicans dismissed the Democrats’ actions as counterproductive political stunts.
“This is the people’s House,” said Speaker Paul Ryan. “This is Congress, the House of Representatives, the oldest democracy in the world. And they [Democrats] are descending it into chaos. I don’t think this should be a very proud moment for democracy, or for the people who staged these stunts.”
“The debate [on gun rights and gun control] has been hijacked,” complained Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
“I think you’ll see us acting out in more ways,” predicted unrepentant House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.
The floor actions of recent days are tame compared with those of past eras, according to political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, another public policy research institute in the capital.
“Go back to the 19th century, and the House floor and the Senate floor were pretty raucous places,” Ornstein said. “We had threats of duels. We had a senator caned to within an inch of his life.”
While sit-in protests by lawmakers are uncommon, Ornstein noted that the right of minority party members to throw sand in the gears of the majority rests firmly in American political tradition.
“In the Senate, the role of the minority is a hallowed one. And the rules are set up to make every individual a power in his or her own right. You can take to the floor and hold it for long periods of time to make your point, block the Senate from acting,” Ornstein said.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, made use of that right during his extended talkathon on gun control last week.
Many others preceded him over the years, at times running out of things to say on the topic at hand.
“’I do not like them in a house, I do not like them with a mouse. … I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am,’” said Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz in 2013, reading solemnly from a children’s book, Green Eggs and Ham, near the end of a 21-hour floor speech opposing funding for Obamacare.
Most of the world’s democracies do not see minority party lawmakers seizing a legislative body.
“In the parliamentary system, the majority rules — period,” Ornstein said. “The American political system is different. The framers [the authors of the Constitution] devised a system where you are going to have debate, deliberation, a lot of obstacles to getting things done so that you could reach a broad consensus in the country.”
But while polls show a growing consensus by the American public on the need to address gun violence, action in Congress remains stymied.
Days after Murphy commandeered the Senate floor, the chamber voted down four proposals on restricting gun sales and expanding background checks of gun purchasers. Backers of a fifth proposal — a bipartisan compromise — fought back an attempt to kill it Thursday, but they lacked the three-fifths support required to advance the measure.
On the other side of the Capitol, moments after Democrats finally vacated the House floor, Ryan vowed that Republicans would not yield to pressure.
“In this country, we do not take away people’s constitutional rights [to bear arms] without due process,” Ryan said.
Democrats said they were undeterred.
“We must never, ever give up. Or give in,” said Lewis.
“It seems like the underlying politics of legislating on gun control issues haven’t been changed much by what happened in Orlando [Florida],” said Reynolds. “The benefits from both last week’s filibuster and this week’s sit-in for Democrats, then, will accrue outside the chamber. The measures that Democrats have emphasized are broadly popular with their voters.”
But Ornstein said political winds are shifting on gun control.
“Five years ago, Democrats didn’t want to talk about guns because they believed it deeply divided their party and put them at a political disadvantage,” he said. “Now the supporters of background checks and a ban on assault rifles have gotten much stronger and more intense [in their advocacy]. And it is the people who don’t want to see any changes in the law who are being put on the defensive.”